Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Muppet Christmas Tree Ornament 1982

I have a very special Aunt, my Aunt Jan, who has given me a Christmas tree ornament every year for as long as I can remember. A good portion of my family's tree is covered with the ornaments she's given me. One of my favorites is one featuring the Muppets that she gave me way back in 1982. I thought I'd share some pictures with all the other Muppet fans out there. I'm sure it's pretty hard to find one of these out there today. It features Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, Floyd, Zoot and Animal. It's hard enough to find Muppet ornaments in general now days, so to have one that features so many characters is just plain cool.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Genesis Reunion!

Don't know how I missed this one but apparently a few weeks ago it was announced that my all-time favorite band, Genesis, would be reuniting for a tour this year. Now, it looks like the US isn't on the schedule that I can see, but it's still cool news.

I think I first became really aware of Genesis in 1986, when the "Invisible Touch" album came out. Most of the songs on that album were hit singles. At this same time Peter Gabriel's album "So" came out. I liked both albums, then I found out that Peter Gabriel was once a part of Genesis, so I was intrigued to look into their earlier work. This led me into the strange world or progressive rock. Since then I've been quite a fan of prog-rock...it was Genesis that took me there. I've always enjoyed their work and, as I've said before, my online name "Squonk" comes from one of their songs.

The version of Genesis that's reuniting is the three-man version- Phil Collins, Michael Rutherford, and Tony Banks. It would've been great to see Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett on board again, perhaps in the future.

You can check out the video of the press conference at the band's website - Genesis

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Tit Willow

"So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." 2 Corinthians 4:18

Great words there, but what does it have to do with puppets you might ask. Well, if you're involved in any sort of ministry, whether it's puppetry or underwater basket weaving, hopefully you understand the true meaning of this passage. But I highlight it here because I want to talk about the "unseen" in our puppet performances.

There are many aspects of a puppet performance which are unseen to the audience. For example, the puppet's legs. If we're really trying to achieve the illusion of life with our puppets, then we should try to make our puppets look as if they have real legs they are walking around on, even though we don't see them. Remembering that there is an unseen elements to our puppet programs can help create a bigger and more real world for our puppets to inhabit. A great example of this is Rowlf the Dog and Sam the Eagle's performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's "Tit Willow" from Season 1 of The Muppet Show.

I love Sam the Eagle, a key element of his character is that he just plain doesn't want to be there. You have to wonder why on earth he even hangs around with the Muppets at times. In "Tit Willow" Rowlf has given Sam the job of playing the part of the bird, which means that all he has to do his recite the line "Willow, Tit Willow, Tit Willow" at the appropriate times. As the song moves on Rowlf remains as enthusiastic as ever, while Sam becomes less and less thrilled with his role.

As Sam grows more self conscious about this whole thing, he looks over his shoulder several times. You can also see him make gestures and mumble things as if he is talking to someone standing offstage. We don't see who he's talking to, but it's clear that someone is there. I picture Fozzie, Gonzo and the other Muppets doing a lousy job of holding back laughter and making sure that Sam can see them.

At one point, Same even says to whoever is watching him, "You wanna do this?" To me these little touches just help to make the audience forget that they are watching puppets. These are real characters. They live in a real world and they have real emotions. These are the things that are unseen to us in the audience, but when the puppets direct our attention that way it helps to create that "illusion of life."

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Gabby Hayes

A few weeks ago our One Way Street Construction Zone got an order for something really unique. The Roy Rogers Museum was looking for some puppet versions of a few of Roy's old buddies. The first was Gabby Hayes. Here you see the Gabby puppet alongside a photo of the actual Gabby Hayes. Keann, the head of the CZ, did an awesome job with him.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Royal Book of Oz

Another book I just finished is The Royal Book of Oz, the 15th book in the Oz series.

It was about a year and a half ago that I re-read L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I read it when I was a child and knew there were other Oz books, but I never got past the first. Like I've said before, I've never been a good reader. This time, however, I had such a great time reading it I decided to continue on. My wife just happened to have a copy of the 2nd book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, buried in a box in the basement. So to make a long story short, here we are at book 15.

The Royal Book of Oz is actually the first in the series not written by L. Frank Baum, even though many copies credit him as the writer. It was actually written by the 2nd Royal Historian of Oz, Ruth Plumly Thompson.

The story concerns the Scarecrow's search for his family. This leads him on an adventure which sends him deep underground to a place called the Silver Island, where he finds out he is actually the current incarnation of an emperor called Chang Wang Woe.

I've really enjoyed the Oz books. They aren't without their flaws, but I find myself getting more and more intrigued with this amazing world with every book. If you read through the Oz books you will definitely find some inconsistencies. It's clear that Baum was making it up as he went. The world isn't as well laid out as say Tolkien's middle earth, but I think that's one of the things I enjoy about Oz.

Of course, I love the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz." It's one of the best films ever made. But there's a part of me that would love to see Oz brought to the screen again, in a style more like what we've seen recently with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films and last year's version of "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe." It'll never happen, of course. Can you imagine the fuss people would make about a new version of "The Wizard of Oz."

Monday, November 13, 2006

Donkey Sneak Peak

Here's a sneak preview of something new the One Way Street Construction Zone has been working on, a brand new Donkey puppet.

Now this is not the final version. Eventually this guy will be gray. We used the tan because it's what we use for our Cameron Camel puppet, so we had a bunch on hand. The nostrils of the final version are also a bit more well-defined. I'll show you all the final version soon. But for now, enjoy the prototype!


I am a horribly slow reader. My wife, she'll go through a book a day, but I'm just not wired for reading. I'm a couch potato...I admit it. But I do enjoy reading, especially non-fiction. This weekend I finally finished a great book I've been working on for awhile, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson. It took me longer to read than I had hoped, thanks in part to the fact that my copy was in my briefcase when it was stolen out of my car a few weeks ago. Take my word, nothing spoils a night of going to see a screening of "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" quite like coming out to the parking lot to find the window of your car broken and your briefcase stolen. I'm sure the perp thought he was getting a laptop or something, but about all they got was this book and a copy of "Will the Circle be Unbroken" I had from the library.

Anyway, this is a great book! It explores a part of an important historic event that is ignored by many today. I already knew John Wilkes Booth was an intriguing character in American history, but so are so many others who he encountered during the days following Lincoln's assassination. The man who killed Booth, Boston Corbett, has to be one of the oddest people I've ever read about.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Ever watch a drummer perform? I mean really watch them? Their hands are the key to their performance, but that's not what I find myself paying attention to. From Buddy Rich to Keith Moon, I find I'm zeroing in on their facial expressions and body movements. It's no different when watching Animal. I think puppeteer Frank Oz realized that. "Fever" with Rita Moreno, from the first season of The Muppet Show, is perhaps one of the best examples of puppet drumming in action.

When "Fever" begins, we're not expecting it to turn into a comedy bit. The camera begins by focusing in on Floyd as he plucks the bass line. It doesn't take long for the camera to tilt up and focus on Moreno with Animal in the background. That's the last we see of Floyd. He's just there to establish the mood, once his job is done, he's outta there. Otherwise, he'd just clutter up the scene.

As the song progresses, Animal keeps the beat as Moreno sings. His head is down, his eyes are closed, and he gently bops his head up and down. When the time is right Animal inserts his own drum fill, which startles Moreno. Take note of how Oz illustrates this, he doesn't focus on Animal's hands, but on his head movement. We hardly even see the drum sticks hit the skins.

After being startled, and probably upstaged twice, Moreno goes back to have a word with her drummer...in Spanish.

Animal looks up at her, but halfway through her speech he turns and looks at the audience, as if to say "Is she serious?" The Muppet performers have always been great at seizing on moments like this to draw their audience in. However, it's Moreno who wins out by grabbing Animal by the nose and turning his attention back to her.

As Moreno heads back to her place, Animals mocks her. When she turns to glare at him, he quickly turns his attention away. Oz really goes to the extreme here, turning Animal's nose to the air and twisting his body into an uncomfortable looking shape. It's great! Animal isn't even trying not to get caught. In fact, he's rubbing Moreno's face in the mud.

As the song continues, we see Animal slowly building up towards another big drum moment. Moreno catches him, and he freezes for a moment, but really it just makes things worse. When he finally let's it rip there's no stopping him. He begins playing wildly. Again, what makes it believable is Animal's head and body movements. It's not wild and uncontrolled. The movements compliment the actual drumming and make you really believe this foam and feather creation is actually playing these instruments. Again, note the hands. At times they are nowhere close to the drums they are supposed to be striking. We either don't notice or don't care because of the character that's coming through the body movements.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Would You Like to Buy an O?

“Would You Like to buy and O” is a classic Sesame Street song that debuted in the third season of the show. It is available as one of the Season 3 Highlights on the new “Sesame Street Old School” DVD. Grab your own copy of the DVD to get a good look at the puppetry techniques for yourself.
Jim Henson plays Ernie, who is minding his own business when he’s suddenly approached by another character. This character played by Frank Oz, wears and trench coat and hat and acts very secretive about trying to sell Ernie a letter O. Henson and Oz were a fantastic team. This particular piece is a great example of how Henson knew when to just sit back and let Oz run with it.

Check out the way that Oz completely sells you on the idea of his character being a somewhat shifty guy. Where did this guy get this letter O he’s selling? We don’t know, and by the way he’s acting, we probably don’t want to know. When he first speaks to Ernie, “Hey bud,” he leans in with the bottom half of the puppets head. It’s like he’s trying to talk out of the corner of his mouth.

Oz takes advantage of little breaks in the music to add little touches that make you wonder if this guy is legit or what. When there’s a break in the lyrics, the character will often look off behind himself, or behind Ernie, to make sure the fuzz isn’t on to him yet. It’s also interesting to note that Oz is only manipulating one of the puppet’s arms, the one holding the O. The other one is attached to the puppet’s side. It kind of looks like he’s got his hand in his pocket, which totally fits the character. What’s he hiding in his other pocket, whatever it is it can’t be good. Maybe a Q or something dangerous like that. It’s important for puppeteers to learn how to do an effective job of manipulating two arm-rods, but it’s also important to realize when you don’t need to use both arm-rods. The subtle movements are part of what sells this character; so having two arms flapping around all the time wasn’t necessary.

What I've Learned from the Muppets

I'm a puppeteer. I love performing with puppets and I love getting to teach others about puppets. So much of what I've learned about puppetry comes from watching other performers, especially the Muppets. The Muppets were a huge part of my childhood. From "Sesame Street" to "The Muppet Show" to "Fraggle Rock," I love them all!

I decided it might be fun to do some articles where we analyze some classic Muppet clips to see why these performances are such great examples of puppetry techniques. I hope all the puppet teams out there will find these helpful and I encourage all of you to pick up the DVD's I refer to so you can get the full picture.